Former naval intelligence officer and his children help students recognize disinformation
As a former naval intelligence officer, Matt Verich Sr. is used to interacting with disinformation professionally. But he decided to take action when he realized his own children had become targets of online propaganda.
Verich, who lives in Alexandria, began The Disinformation Project in 2021. He said the organization’s mission is “raising awareness of disinformation and the problems of disinformation with teenagers.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines disinformation as false information that is deliberately spread with the intent to deceive or mislead. It’s a long-deployed tactic, but, according to Verich, social media has helped increase its spread and escalate its effectiveness.
The origins for the nonprofit organization started during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Verich’s teens Matthew and Anna were at home and online much more often than in the past. Verich noticed his teens were consuming a large amount of content on social media and recognized some of that content seemed to be intended to create divisiveness.
Matthew Verich Jr., now a freshman at Yale University, noticed many of his friends, who had become involved in social activism, were posting and sharing stories that seemed to be untrue.
He recalled one example following the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani at the Baghdad Airport in Iraq in 2020. According to Verich Jr., rumors began spreading that the attack, which was ordered by President Donald Trump, could lead to World War III. That concern then led classmates to believe social media posts indicating the U.S. might reinstate the draft. Verich Jr. questioned these fears and said he was frustrated that the disinformation was creating anxiety.
Verich Sr. decided to create something that could help teens make sense of what they were seeing online. “[My children] knew some of this stuff was unhealthy or divisive,” he said, “but they didn’t have the tools, the strategies, the resources to help them navigate that.”
Once the nonprofit was operating, Verich Jr., then a student at West Potomac High School in Alexandria, decided to start a club dedicated to stopping the spread of disinformation. During its first year, the club focused on building awareness.
“My club officers and I were able to spread disinformation awareness campaigns to get the word out that not everything you’re seeing online is true,” Verich Jr., said.
They also created a Disinformation Project QR code that links students to resources that teach them how disinformation spreads and help them critically examine online content.
Verich Sr. emphasized that The Disinformation Project’s role is not to tell teens what is true and what is not but to be a “bridge between a lot of really good research that’s being done at universities and think tanks.”
The club at West Potomac High School is in its second year and its members helped launch new chapters at two other Northern Virginia high schools. Anna Verich, who has taken over as chapter president at West Potomac, said she hopes “this is something that could become a movement.”